Is your child’s mattress poisoning them? The scary truth behind bedtime.

Sydney Selman
Jul 5, 2018 · 12 min read

Let’s face it. Becoming a new mother is exhausting. In fact, many mothers rejoice when it’s finally nap time and their infant sleeps soundly. But in today’s day and age, the very act of laying your child down to sleep is dangerous.

The vast majority of mattresses infants sleep on expose them to many different toxic substances that are harmful to their health. In fact, it is recommended infants’ cribs be kept in well ventilated areas because of how toxic their mattresses are. This is very alarming. So, what exactly are your children being exposed to? The answer is shocking.

What’s in your infant’s mattress?

The toxicants discussed in this article are not chemically bound to the crib mattress and mattress cover. This means these chemicals are able to easily come off of the materials, making it easy for your child to inhale or ingest the toxicants and absorb the chemicals through their skin.

The most popular crib mattress material on the market is polyurethane foam. Polyurethane is most frequently made from petroleum by products and is used as insulation, surface coatings, adhesives, plastics, and apparel. Polyurethane foams have been found to off-gas (meaning chemicals within the material are released in a gaseous state) volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and phthalates as well as release semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) in the form of airborne dust.

Crib mattresses also often come with a waterproof plastic covering which is often made from a PVC plastic. PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is very brittle and requires the addition of plasticizers to make the product flexible. The materials used in plastic crib mattress covers off-gas phthalates that can be harmful to your child’s health.

With all the chemicals involved in making the polyurethane foam and PVC plastic covering, it’s no surprise the concentration of phthalates, VOCs, and SVOCs, off-gassed by crib mattresses and mattress covers are greater than concentrations found in normal indoor air by a factor of about 1.5–2.4 (Boor et al., 2015).

The main issue with plasticizers is that concentration of harmful chemicals such as phthalates and VOCs off-gassed by the mattress increases dramatically when heated. This means that as your child is sleeping, the amount of toxic chemicals they are being exposed to is significantly higher than what they are exposed to outside of the crib. An increase of temperature caused by a sleeping child can increase the off-gassing of phthalate and volatile organic compound by as much as a factor of 10 and the release of semi-volatile organic compounds by as much as a factor of 10.


Phthalates are a common type of plasticizer that are used to make hard plastic more flexible. As mentioned earlier, crib mattress covers are often made of PVC plastics, which are very brittle and require plasticizers to allow for a softer mattress cover.

Common phthalates include di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP), bisphenol A (BPA), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBzP), and di 2-ethylhexl phthalate (DEHP), among others. For information regarding labeling on plastics containing phthalates, please refer to the National Institutes of Health’s Phthalate Handout. DEHP was found to be the most prevalent phthalate off-gassed by crib mattresses and mattress covers.

Infants are exposed to phthalates in a variety of ways. Phthalates are contained in drugs, plastic bottles, food, water, and even crib mattresses. However, infants spend the majority of their day (anywhere from 12–14 hours per day) in cribs. This fact has led researchers to believe a large amount of infants’ phthalate exposure comes from the sleep environment.

“Babies spend about 12–14 hours per day sleeping… When you’re looking at exposure to various air pollutants, most of it occurs in that space.” — Brandon Boor, researcher at The University of Texas at Austin and Purdue University

Many phthalates are reproductive toxicants and endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with the body’s hormonal balance by mimicking the body’s naturally occurring hormones. This is especially problematic for children because their development relies on hormonal regulation. DEHP, the most common phthalate found in crib mattresses, is recognized by the National Institutes of Health as a known endocrine disruptor.

The Hormone Health Network explains what endocrine disrupting chemicals are.

Inhalation of phthalates has been shown to cause the “feminization” of male subjects and a reduction in male fertility in laboratory animal studies. Phthalates have also been linked to increased incidence of developmental disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and insulin resistance (Wittasek et al., 2011).

Even more alarming is that a recent study found that airborne phthalates concentrate around the child’s breathing zone as they sleep. This can cause the phthalate concentration around the child to be as much as four times higher than that of the surrounding air.

Dr. Brandon Boor discusses his research on infant inhalation exposure of toxicants from vinyl flooring. The inhalation exposure children face crawling around on vinyl flooring is very similar to what they are exposed to in their cribs.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile organic compounds are found in almost every indoor environment. Volatile organic compounds are a class of harmful compounds emitted from solids or liquids and are recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as harmful indoor air pollutants (Laing & Xu, 2014). Many VOCs have been recognized as potential human carcinogens and have harmful side effects.

Common health effects of VOC exposure experienced by human adults include damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system; eye, nose, and throat irritation; and cancer. The risk to infants, however, is much more prevalent. Infants inhale about 10 times more per body mass than adults and have a skin surface to body weight ratio of three times greater than adults, which makes them especially vulnerable to even small amounts of toxicants.

Infant exposure to VOCs has been linked to a variety of side effects. The most common negative health effects include a weakening of the immune system, increased risk of allergic disease, increased risk of pulmonary infections, and asthma.

In a 2015 study at the University of Texas at Austin, over 30 different types of VOCs were discovered to off-gas by new and old crib mattresses. A 2014 study completed by the same research team estimated the total VOC inhalation exposure to infants to be about 8 µg of total VOCs/kg-day from polyurethane foam mattresses alone. Among the 30 VOCs discovered to off-gas from crib mattresses include formaldehyde and phenol.

Formaldehyde is considered a toxic air pollutant by the EPA and is regulated within the United States as well as classified as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Specifically, the chemical has been associated with cancers of the lower respiratory tract and leukemia. However, the chemical is still found in crib mattresses and is still able to harm your child. Infants are exposed to formaldehyde through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact.

If formaldehyde is inhaled, your child’s risk for asthma is increased. Laboratory studies on lab animals have shown that, when inhaled, formaldehyde causes irritation and damage to the lining of the nose, throat, and even the lung. The same lab studies have shown ingestion of formaldehyde can cause stomach damage.

Phenol, another common VOC, is also toxic. Like formaldehyde, infants are exposed to phenol through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal exposure. Phenol is also classified by the EPA as a toxic indoor air pollutant. Phenol, however, has been linked to muscle weakness, convulsions, and comas when it is absorbed through the skin. The full effects of phenol exposure to infants has not been as widely studied as formaldehyde and is not completely understood.

Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs)

Semi-volatile organic compounds, however, are a subgroup of VOCs that have a higher molecular weight and boiling point. SVOCs are often released into the environment as airborne dust. Like VOCs, SVOCs are indoor air pollutants that are potentially harmful. Unfortunately, little is known about the toxicity of SVOCs.

The most common type of SVOC found in crib mattresses and mattress covers are flame retardants. Due to cost efficiency reasons, mattress companies often use questionable chemicals in creating the flame retardant substance that covers the mattress. However, due to US laws protecting industry, the exact chemical make-up of a company’s flame retardant can be guarded as a “trade secret”.

Common hazardous chemicals included in chemical flame retardants include boric acid, antimony, and decabromodiphenyl oxide. These chemicals have been known to be absorbed through the skin. Boric acid is often used as a pesticide and is a reproductive and developmental toxin. Antimony is a possible human carcinogen and has been linked to heart and lung damage. Decabromodiphenyl oxide is also a possible human carcinogen and has been shown to cause hair and memory loss. These chemicals have also been linked to skin irritation; learning and memory deficit; cancers; and heart, lung, and kidney damage.

There are differing opinions on the safety of chemical flame retardants within government agencies. The Consumer Product Safety Commission says the level at which adults are exposed to flame retardants in mattresses is safe. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, says the levels of chemicals adult are exposed to from fire retardants is toxic. Specifically, the level of antimony in most flame retardants is as much as 27.5 times higher than what the EPA considers safe.

For more information on the specific chemicals that may be found in your child’s mattress’ flame retardant, please refer to the IPEN’s Guide to Flame Retardants.

Current regulations do little to protect you

In 2008, Congress took action to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals children are exposed to through toys and cribs by passing the US Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). Although the act was mainly targeted towards lead in children’s toys, it also aimed to reduce the phthalate concentration in the average crib mattress. CPSIA mandated the phthalate concentration in a crib mattress and crib mattress cover must not exceed 1% by weight.

A team at The University of Texas at Austin recently found that crib mattresses manufactured after the passing of CPSIA often contained phthalate concentrations that surpassed CPSIA regulations. They found the average concentration of phthalates in crib mattress covers to be about 140 to 210 mg DEHP/g, despite the fact that DEHP was banned by the act. The highest phthalate concentration found in the mattress foam also exceeded CPSIA regulations with 125.7 mg DEHP/g. Only 9 out of the 20 mattresses tested met CPSIA standards. CPSIA also neglects to regulate volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile organic compounds. More information on the study can be found here.

The US Food and Drug Administration has yet to identify phthalates as harmful to humans, despite the existing peer-reviewed evidence proving the chemicals’ toxicity. The FDA also does not investigate the cumulative effects of phthalates in the human body and instead only test each chemical one by one.

The issue here is that phthalates have a dose-additive effect on humans, meaning exposure to different types of phthalates at the same time, which is what infants are actually exposed to via their mattresses and mattress covers, can cause a much greater physiological response.

US regulations protect industries, even when those regulations may hurt citizens. As mentioned earlier, the chemical makeup of substances in mattresses is often considered a trade secret or proprietary information. This means the toxic chemicals inside your infant’s mattress do not need to be disclosed to you, the customer. So even if you wanted to make a proper, informed decision on the type of mattress to provide for you child, the act would prove extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The only way you would be able to actually see what is in your child’s mattress is to send it to a lab for testing where they place the mattress in a vacuum chamber and wait to see what comes off of it. This is simply not feasible for the average consumer.

What can you do?

The first option for reducing your child’s exposure to phthalates, VOCs, and SVOCs is to avoid polyurethane foam mattresses with a PVC plastic covering. Polyurethane foam mattresses emitted the highest concentration of toxic VOCs, SVOCs, and phthalates. It is recommended that parents buy organic cotton mattresses with a natural flame retardant such as wool. These mattresses do not contain harmful phthalates or VOCs.

There are more options out there for safer crib mattresses than one would think. Local organic mattress companies such as Austin Natural Mattress specialize in non-toxic mattresses for all types of beds, ranging from queens to cribs.

Babyletto’s mattress selection is available here.

A popular mattress band many conscious moms choose is Babyletto. These crib mattresses usually contain a natural coco core starting at about $260. Babyletto also carries cheaper mattresses with cotton and polyester cores starting at about $160. All Babyletto mattresses are free from chemical flame retardants and off-gassing materials, which will give you peace of mind. These mattresses are available online through the Babyletto website and through Target.

An all-cotton, organic mattress can be pricey, but there are other things you can do to decrease your child’s exposure to harmful toxicants. While companies are not required to disclose the use of phthalates in their products, it is pretty easy to avoid them if you know what to look for. When buying a crib mattress cover (or any plastics), find the recycling symbol on the product. If the number 3 is within the recycling arrows or “V” or “PVC” are below the arrows, do not buy it. These products contain polyvinyl chloride, which contains phthalates to increase its flexibility. Instead, look for the number 5 within the recycling arrows. These plastics contain substances like polypropylene (PP), which are phthalate free alternatives.

It is also recommended that older mattresses are reused. The concentration of VOCs and SVOCs decrease over time, which will decrease your child’s exposure to the toxicants. However, older mattresses may also contain toxic chemicals that have sense been banned, so this solution should be taken with a grain of salt.

As mentioned above, it is recommended that cribs be kept in a well-ventilated area. The toxic chemicals from the mattress and mattress cover concentrate around your child’s immediate breathing zone. By placing your child’s crib in a well-ventilated area, they will be less exposed to toxicants from their mattress.

“Our findings suggest the reuse of an older crib or an extended airing-out period may help reduce infant VOC exposures” -Dr. Ying Xu, assistant professor and mattress researcher at The University of Texas at Austin

For infants who are immune compromised, the threat posed by an ordinary mattress can be much greater. In some cases, your pediatrician may be able to prescribe a cotton mattress without any flame retardants. However, if you do choose this option, it is important to note the mattress, with your child in it, will not be able to withstand heat or flames as well. Be sure to place this type of mattress away from any open flame or exposed wiring.

Lastly, it is important to demand better chemical regulations. The European Union, among other government agencies, relies on something called the precautionary principle. This means that chemicals must be proven safe before being released into the marketplace, which protects its citizens from harmful chemicals like phthalates and VOCs. This proves that it is possible for the US to enforce better regulations without serious economic consequences. More information about the EU’s precautionary principle can be found here.

Our children should not be exposed to such harmful toxicants at such a young and essential stage of development. Get involved in your community and help other make informed decisions on the products they buy.

For more information on the toxicity of crib mattresses, please visit the following peer-reviewed literature and government fact sheets below.

Bruce, R. M., Santodonato, J., & Neal, M. W. (1987). Summary Review of the Health Effects Associated With Phenol. Toxicology and Industrial Health,3(4), 535–568.

Boor, B. E., Jarnstrom, H., Novoselac, A., & Xu, Y. (2014). Infant Exposure to Emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds from Crib Mattresses. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48 (6), pp. 3541–3549.

Boor, B. E., Järnström, H., Xu, Y., & Novoselac, A. (2012). Identification of VOCs, Phthalates, and Isocyanates in Crib Mattresses. Healthy Buildings 2012.

Boor, B. E., Liang, Y., Crain, N. E., Jarnstrom, H., et al. (2015). Identificatin of Phthalate and Alternative Plasticizers, Flame Retardants, and Unreacted Isocyanates in Infant Crib Mattress Covers and Foam. Enviorn. Sci. Technol. Lett. 2(4), pp. 89–94.

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2018, February 22). Ingredients — Phthalates. Retrieved June 19, 2018, from

Consumer Federation of America. (2013). CPSIA Fact Sheet. Retrieved June 26, 2018, from

Costa, L. G., & Giordano, G. (2007). Developmental neurotoxicity of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. NeuroToxicology 28(6), pp. 1047–1067.

Engel, S. M., Miodovnik, A., Canfield, R. L., Zhu, C., et al. (2010). Prenatal phthalate exposure is associated with childhood behavior and executive functioning. Environ. Health Persp. 118, pp. 565–571.

Environmental Protection Agency. (2017, November 06). Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality

Gray, L. E., Wilson, V. S., Stoker, T., Lambright, C., et al. (2006). Adverse effects of environmental antiandrogens and androgens on reproductive development in mammals. J. Androl. 29, pp. 96–104.

Hoffman, K., Butt, C. M., Chen, A., Limkakeng, A. T., et al. (2015). High Exposure to Organophosphate Flame Retardants in Infants: Associations with Baby Products. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49 (24), pp. 14554–14559.

Laing, Y. & Xu, Y. (2014). Emission of phthalates and phthalate alternatives from vinyl flooring and crib mattress covers: The influence of temperature. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48 (24), pp. 14228–14237.

Roda, C., Guihenneuc-Jouyaux, C., & Momas, I. (2013). Environmental triggers of nocturnal dry cough in infancy: New insights about chronic domestic exposure to formaldehyde in the PARIS birth cohort. Environ. Research 123, pp. 46–51.

Wittassek, M., Kock, H. M., Angerer, J., & Bruning, T. (2011). Assessing exposure to phthalates- The human biomonitoring approach. Mol. Nutr. Food Res. 55, pp. 7–31.

Zhang, L., Steinmaus, C., Eastmond, D. A., Xin, X. K., & Smith, M. T. (2009). Formaldehyde exposure and leukemia: A new meta-analysis and potential mechanisms. Mutation Research 681(2–3), pp. 150–168.

Sydney Selman

Written by

Treeusable 2018

Healthy products for healthy people and planet

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade